When most people think of Nevada, it’s gambling or seeing shows in Las Vegas or hiking in the Ruby Mountains or Lake Tahoe that likely first come to mind.
But an unmanned drone that was shot down by Iran over the Gulf of Oman and the derailment of a train carrying munitions near Elko, both occurring earlier this month, serve as a reminder of the state’s strategic importance and the large footprint that the Pentagon has in Nevada.
The substantial military presence in Nevada is one based on economics and politics, said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto.
“Nevada plays an important role in keeping our country safe, and in turn the military presence brings jobs and economic opportunity to the Silver State” she said in a statement provided by her office
A 2014 study commissioned by the Nevada Governor’s Military Council found that the state’s military installations employed more than 53,000 people and increased economic output by $28 billion. The installations as a whole generated $9 billion in personal earnings and $307 million in state taxes.
The relationship between the military and the economy goes back to Democratic Sens. Pat McCarran, Howard Cannon and Alan Bible who used their influence in the chamber to win “goodies” for the state in the form of military installations and the like, said Michael Green, associate professor of history at UNLV.
The drone shot down in the Middle East was an MQ-9 Reaper, a remotely piloted aircraft, many of which are based at Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs. Creech’s mission is primarily maintaining and operating unmanned aerial vehicles. It is also home to several Air Force and Nevada National Guard units.
Sen. Jacky Rosen, extolling the strategic importance of the state, said, “Nevada is the home of the fighter pilot for both the Air Force and Navy, the largest remotely piloted aircraft mission for the Air Force, and it’s the only place in the country where subcritical experiments are conducted to verify the viability of our nuclear stockpile."
A spokesperson for Creech did not respond to an inquiry about whether the drone shot down by Iran had a connection to the Nevada base.
The loss of the drone inflamed tensions with Iran and nearly resulted in a U.S. strike on the Islamic republic, which was called off at the last minute by President Donald Trump after he said he learned that it could result in the death of about 150 people.
The state is also home to the Hawthorne Army Depot Base, which stores conventional munitions and demilitarizes and disposes of unserviceable, obsolete and surplus munitions.
The freight on the Union Pacific train that derailed recently included munitions that were headed to the Hawthorne depot, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. The crash did not disturb any of the arms on the train and no one was hurt.
Along with Creech and Hawthorne, Nellis Air Force Base, located in Las Vegas, is known as “Home of the Fighter Pilot,” because it is home to more squadrons than any other U.S. Air Force Base in the world.
Also referred to as the flagship base of the U.S. Air Force, Nellis contains the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), which is the “crown jewel” of the Air Force’s training facilities. The range is the largest contiguous air and ground space in the U.S. available for peacetime military training operations. Its size and remote location enable the airmen and women who train there to gain experience not possible anywhere else in the country.
Currently, the Air Force is upgrading it’s training at the NTTR to ensure pilots can fight and win against enemies we face today, including ISIS, and adversaries we might face on the battlefield in the future, such as Russia or China.
“My district is home to both Nellis and Creech Air Force Bases—I have continually fought to secure funding for these institutions that keep not only Nevadans, but Americans across the country safe,” Rep. Steven Horsford said in a statement provided by his office. “I am proud of Nevada’s contribution to our country’s national security and the pivotal role our state has played and continues to play in protecting the United States from threats abroad.”
In December 2017, Nevada was key in a series of exercises held at strategic bases to fend off a possible invasion from North Korea. The exercises included 119 soldiers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division parachuting out of C-17 military cargo planes under cover of darkness in an exercise that simulated a foreign invasion, as reported by The New York Times.
“Army soldiers practiced moving paratroopers on helicopters and flew artillery, fuel and ammunition deep behind what was designated as enemy lines. The maneuvers were aimed at forcing an enemy to fight on different fronts early in combat,” the paper reported. “Officials said maneuvers practiced in the exercise, called Panther Blade, could be used anywhere, not just on the Korean Peninsula.”
Nevada also boasts Naval Air Station Fallon, which is tasked with training pilots and support staff in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat. It is the U.S. Navy’s premier tactical air warfare training center.
All in all, Nevada became a military juggernaut not for its own sake but for the sake of the jobs that politicians wanted to bring to the state at a time when Nevada was less prosperous.
“The military brought benefits and jobs for their constituents,” Green said. “It was a great chance to be patriotic; it was also a great chance to be political.”
Green added that Nevada’s political clout, particularly in the Senate, was also important.
McCarran served between 1933 and 1954 and championed aviation advances as well as separating the Air Force from the Army. He was instrumental in turning a World War II Army-era gunnery school into what became Nellis Air Force Base.
“When McCarran went into the Senate in the early ‘30s, the Great Depression had been going on, the mining industry was not doing that well, especially compared to the early 20th century or during World War I and the only real jobs program in the state of Nevada, to speak of, was a federal project: Hoover Dam,” Green said, adding that the military presented an opportunity for the down-on-its-luck Silver State.
Green added that had the proposal to build a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain come at that time, he believes the state would have welcomed it.
“People might feel a little different now [about Yucca] if they had wrinkles in their belly,” Green said, a reference a time when “the tummies weren’t quite as full.”
The project is now vociferously opposed by Nevada lawmakers over concerns that transporting the waste to the site would run an unacceptable risk of an accident.
They pointed to the recent train derailment to make that case.
“Keeping my constituents safe is my top priority,” said Horsford. “The recent Elko train derailment highlights the importance of keeping thousands upon thousands of tons of nuclear waste out of Nevada. The people of Nevada have made themselves clear: We do not want our state to be the dumping ground for the nation’s nuclear waste.”
As McCarran’s seniority grew, so did his sway with the Department of Defense.
“He used his power in Congress to get goodies for the state, including expanding the military footprint in the state,” Green said.
“During World War II, McCarran pushed for the Basic Magnesium plant, which evolved into Henderson, the gunnery school that became Nellis, but we also had a Naval Air Station in Fallon, also Army air bases in Reno and Tonopah,” Green continued.
Green also cited Cannon, a war hero who served between 1959 and 1983, and who had an interest in military affairs.
“Howard Cannon was a senator for four terms on defense-related committees,” Green said. “He had been a war hero and he would fly the planes the Pentagon would bring before the committee to see if they really were any good, so he was an important voice there.”
Green also pointed to Bible who served between 1954 and 1974 on committees that had oversight of federal lands, which underscores the tension between the military presence and the public use of federal lands in the state.
The fact that Nevada consists of mostly federal land, about 80 percent, was also appealing to the military, Green said.
“It was appealing that there was a lot of federal land,” which kept protests and NIMBYists to a limit, he added.
But there are still conflicts between the military and the population over land use.
“When we talk about the idea of the military in the west, we are also talking about what if that land were instead used for hiking and fishing and all of the other outdoorsy things people want to do,” Green said. “So it is also part of the public land debate as well.”
The latest push for even more military operations centers on an effort by Nellis to expand the NTTS by 300,000 acres. The military has said the expansion is necessary to accommodate training for modern warfare. But environmentalists, hunters, tribes, rural interests and off-road enthusiasts oppose it. They are concerned the expansion could limit access, disturb cultural sites and disrupt a wildlife refuge established in 1936 to protect bighorn sheep, The Nevada Independent reported in March.
“As the needs of the U.S. military continue to evolve, the Air Force has proposed an expansion to the boundaries of the Nevada Test and Training Range,” Cortez Masto said. “I’m actively working with stakeholders, from local conservation groups to federal agencies, and I hope all involved parties can come together and develop a proposal that conserves Nevada’s wild spaces, economic development opportunities and our commitment to supporting our armed forces.”
The final call is expected to be made by Congress next year.